Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Jonathan Bernstein Interview: The Two Key Factors for Preserving and Rebuilding Reputation

Jonathan Bernstein, President of Bernstein Crisis Management, has crisis and issues management experience encompassing a wide range of industries and subjects, to include accounting, architecture, associations, banking, charities, education, environment, financial services, food (retail and B2B), governmental organizations, health care, housing, hospitality, insurance, labor & employment, litigation, manufacturing, product recalls, professional services, real estate development, religious institutions, securities, security, senior housing, and white collar crime. He is a self-admitted “Internet nerd,” online since 1982, who has pioneered strategies and tactics for Internet-centered crisis and reputation management.

—The Measurement Standard: Welcome to our Measurement Life interview, Jonathan! First, let’s learn a little about you: How did you become interested in crisis communications? What course of study did you follow and how did you get started on this path?

First, it’s important to understand that there was no formal PR field of “crisis communications” when I attended college, nor did I have any idea I’d end up in PR when I was in school, where I earned a bachelor’s in Speech Communications (magna cum laude) at the University of Maryland.  I have, however, had three related careers.

For five years in the U.S. Army I was engaged in both counterintelligence and human intelligence collection.  That’s where I learned a lot about assessing vulnerability (ours and “the enemy’s”), about how to organize to accomplish specific goals, how to motivate people, etc.

Before leaving the service, I realized that my skills might translate well into becoming an investigative reporter and secured a position with then-famous journalist Jack Anderson.  But, after five years of staff and freelance journalism, someone pointed out to me that my skills would now convert well to the world of public relations.

—TMS: What would you recommend for today’s students, especially for those with an interest in crisis communications?

First, I would ask them to answer these questions:

  • Are you able to think quickly on your feet during crises/emergencies, when most others around you “freeze”?
  • Are you able to write well and quickly?
  • Are you able to speak well?
  • Are you able to intuit how to get from point A to point G without necessarily considering the points in between?

If their answer to all four questions is “yes,” then I would say they could enhance their potential as crisis management professionals by attending a good collegiate program.

—TMS: It seems that now more than ever before, crises can happen to anyone or any business. How do you define a crisis, and what do you recommend as the basic elements of an effective crisis communications plan?

I define a crisis as “Any situation that is threatening or could threaten to harm people or property, seriously interrupt operations and/or damage reputation.”

Basic elements of a crisis communications plan:

  • Policies relevant to crisis communications (e.g., spokesperson policy)
  • ID core crisis communications team
  • ID ad hoc (as needed) crisis team members
  • Holding statements for most-likely crisis scenarios
  • Forms for use during crises

—TMS: We’ve seen a lot of major brands making headlines for crises in the last year or two. As these cases unfold in the public eye, it reminds all business leaders how important corporate reputation is. How can brands preserve their reputation and rebuild it after a crisis?

Two key factors: (a) engage in proactive PR when not in crisis to build a cushion of goodwill (b) get to the root of the crisis and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

—TMS: Along those same lines, there have been significant declines in trust, especially trust in communications and the media. What would you recommend to organizations looking to build and maintain trust with their key audiences?

Simple.  Walk your talk.

—TMS: You have decades of experience with the internet and online communication. Can you talk about how the development of digital and social media has changed how crises spread and the practice of crisis communications?

Most significantly, the internet and all that it makes possible have made the ability to respond to crises quickly and appropriately, 24/7.  In the absence of communication, rumor and innuendo fill the gap – and that reality combined with the Internet produces the phenomenon of “viral” information/news.   

—TMS: Communications measurement is necessary for professionals to gauge how their work contributes to business goals. How does measurement and evaluation play a role in crisis communications?

Any crisis communications plan/program should have objectives, and the tactics have to be designed to achieve those objectives.  Subjective and objective analysis of results tells us how well we’re doing in that regard.  I have yet to find a paid service that can accurately assess sentiment, unfortunately, but excellent services such as CARMA can track many different media types and we supplement that with tools such as Hootsuite, then manually assess sentiment and whether we’re achieving the objectives.

—TMS: If you could invent one magical measurement or crisis evaluation tool to accomplish anything, what would it be?

A tool that could accurately assess sentiment!

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